Many aspects of a company’s operations must comply with environmental laws. And naturally, most of these operations are carried out by workers. Company officials and supervisors oversee these operations, of course. But they can’t be everywhere at once. So what happens if a worker deliberately violates an environmental law? Don’t assume that the company is off the hook. Although workers can be liable for deliberate violations they commit, the responsibility for ensuring compliance with the law ultimately falls on the company.

Getting workers to obey company policies is obviously critical to a company’s compliance efforts. But there’s more to environmental compliance than just setting a bunch of rules, hiring good people and assuming they’ll do their jobs. Other companies have tried this approach. They attempted to pin the blame for the incident on the worker. We counted on him to follow our procedures and properly complete the required paperwork, they contend. But courts don’t often buy this argument. Although a company should trust its workers to some extent, such trust can’t be used as an excuse to relieve the company of its duty to ensure that workers are doing what they’re required to do.

Your company’s workers do have some responsibility for complying with environmental laws. Remember: Your company can’t put all of its eggs in the workers’ basket. That is, your company can’t rely on workers to comply with the law as its sole environmental compliance mechanism. If your company places all of its trust in workers to do their jobs in compliance with company policy and the law, and you fail to take additional steps to ensure that they’re actually doing so, you are making a mistake that can get you into trouble.

The moral: When it comes to environmental compliance, the company is ultimately responsible. That’s why senior management needs to get involved. No, you don’t have to personally conduct inspections of the workplace or train workers on compliance with environmental rules and laws. You can rely on managers, supervisors and the EHS coordinator to do those kinds of day-to-day tasks. But you need to oversee how managers, supervisors and workers carry out their responsibilities. For senior management, appropriate oversight would involve taking steps to ensure that:

  • Workers are aware of and receive adequate training in their obligations under environmental laws
  • There’s a system in place to ensure that supervisors provide adequate instructions to workers and that workers comply with those instructions
  • The company’s environmental rules and policies are enforced—even if it means disciplining
  • noncompliant workers; and
  • Compliance with the company’s environmental policies and environmental laws is considered when evaluating the performance of workers, supervisors, and managers, and determining their qualification for raises and/or promotions